Cat lover? US museum explores the power of felines in Ancient Egypt

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A collection of feline artwork is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. (Photos supplied)
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Cats played an important role in Ancient Egyptian imagery.
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Statues of protective lions pre-dated the use of gargoyles, which can be seen throughout Europe.
Updated 03 December 2017

Cat lover? US museum explores the power of felines in Ancient Egypt

WASHINGTON: Thousands of years ago, cats successfully managed to wrap us around their little paws. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ancient Egyptian art and culture, from paintings of felines to mummified cats buried with their masters’ remains.
In around 1950 BCE, a feline was painted on the back wall of a limestone tomb some 250 kilometers south of Cairo. It is clearly a domestic cat and seems ready to pounce on an approaching field rat. This is first inkling that cats were beginning to gain in stature and prestige in Ancient Egypt.
In the centuries that followed, cats became a fixture of Egyptian paintings and sculptures and were revered as they rose in prominence from rodent killer to eventually gain the stature of a divine being.
A collection of feline artwork is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” is a superb collection that explores feline themes in mythology, kingship and even everyday life.
Images of a mother cat nursing her kittens, or an attentive cat wearing gold earrings, help emphasize felines’ shift from domesticated cats to symbols of divinity in Ancient Egypt.
These now-immortalized Egyptian cats played an important role in Ancient Egyptian imagery for thousands of years and the Smithsonian’s temporary exhibition — most of the cats are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum’s world-famous Egyptian collection — features more than 80 objects that explore both wild and domestic cats, feline deities, mummified cats in burial practices and luxury items decorated with feline imagery.
“This exciting temporary exhibit is devoted to Ancient Egyptian cats, from the time of the pharaohs,” Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of Islamic Art and the Freer/Sackler Galleries for Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Smithsonian Institution, told Arab News during the exhibition’s recent press preview.
“The reason we became interested in the exhibition is because Mr. Sackler was extremely interested in Egyptian art, so much so that he traveled to Egypt three times during his lifetime.
“Here in the museum, the Islamic galleries promote the theme of ‘engaging in the senses’,” said Farhad. “They examine how sound, sight, taste and touch can affect a person. These senses lead inward to one’s inner senses which one hopes will lead to increased knowledge, memory and understanding.”
Lions and power
Whether hunting for food or protecting their cubs, felines — and most especially lions — captured the imagination of the Ancient Egyptians. They were venerated because of their power, ferocity and speed and also their graceful majesty.
Pharaohs and Egyptian kings used the imagery of felines to convey the divine, along with royalty and superiority.
Many kings felt the need demonstrate their control and superiority over these mighty animals in a bid to demonstrate their strength and dominance over all, including these large felines.
Pharaohs, especially during the New Kingdom period between 1550 BCE to 712 BCE, were displayed on murals as organizing lion hunts and royal places kept captured lions and other large felines in zoo-like enclosures on their palace property.
Image after image displays these powerful symbols throughout the exhibition.
“Look at this large cat with (a) paw over its other paw, it is meant to project confidence,” said Antonietta Catanzariti, the curatorial fellow at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. “Think of the lions’ paws you’ve seen on the feet of chairs,” said Catanzariti, “these were a symbol of status that indicated both power and protection for the person sitting in the chair.”
Cats: From amulets to furniture
Images of felines were also used for protection — not only do we see them on furniture, but also on major points of structures. Cats, displayed on jewelry, were even commonly worn as amulets.
Statues of protective lions pre-dated the use of gargoyles, which we would later see on cathedrals throughout Europe. As for amulets, feline figurines were commonly worn in Ancient Egypt by the middle and upper classes, Catanzariti said.
“Bastet was one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous felines. (She was) a mother-goddess with protective and maternal attributes,” Catanzariti added. Bastet was worshipped in homes and temples, “just think of how a docile mother cat can become ferocious to protect her kittens,” Catanzariti said, explaining why the animal was revered.
“Sakhemet was another feline goddess (and) she was known as the ‘the powerful one,’ so powerful that she was thought to even be able to protect the king while in battle and also in his everyday life,” Catanzariti told Arab News.
“In ancient Egypt, the king or pharaoh would always travel with objects that represented his status and strength. Lions were used for protection and power during his war activities in other countries.”
To have a lion at his side was viewed as the ultimate power. “The king wanted to control the lions to demonstrate to his citizens that he was in control of all — even over lions — which was why they were portrayed in hunting scenes with the pharaohs, they represented royalty.”
Bes is another cat deity, venerated because she was thought to help during transitional moments, such as childbirth.
“Bes was seen as a more intimate deity and was associated with mothers. Women wore images of her and used her as an amulet,” said Catanzariti, whose passion for the objects at the exhibition is contagious.
Succinct descriptions throughout the exhibition guide and enlighten visitors on various feline themes, so even if you wander around without a guide, you are sure to leave with some interesting facts.
The exhibition is on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and closes on Jan. 15, 2018.


The magic of dabke

Updated 01 October 2020

The magic of dabke

  • The traditional Levantine dance form is enjoying a renaissance as a new generation of artists introduce it to a younger audience

LONDON: “For me, it’s the voices of the mountain,” says the Lebanese musician Wael Koudaih, perhaps better known as Rayess Bek. “The singers always have these amazing, big, beautiful voices. Because they needed to shout in the mountains. It’s a legend of course. An image. But I like this image.”

Koudaih is talking all things dabke: The music, the dancing, the rhythm, the history. “You know, they used to put mud on the rooftops of houses every summer, or something like that, to protect it from the rain,” he says. “So people would invite the whole village to come over and tap with their feet so the mud would be compressed. And in order to do this in a nice way they would dance. They would bring instruments and have a party on the roof.”

Dabke is intrinsic to the culture and identity of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Supplied

No country or religion has a monopoly on dabke. It is intrinsic to the culture and identity of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and it is as vibrant today as it’s ever been. In Lebanon and Palestine alone there are multiple regional variations, which not only differ in tempo, but have different groove patterns and rhythm signatures. The dances, too, are varied, although a handful of styles form dabke’s traditional backbone. In the most popular, the dancers will be led by a lawweeh (waver), a charismatic improviser who controls both the tempo and the energy of the line.

“Dabke has a particular energy that is different from other dance forms,” says Jamila Boughelaf, a member of Hawiyya, a London-based women’s dabke group that explores identity, culture and resistance through dance. “The synchronized and powerful stomping of the feet, the power of connection neatly expressed through the line, which is then broken into energetic improvisations and jumps: all made me realize that it’s not just a nice dance, there’s a very important message behind it.”

Dancers from the Palestinian Nashama band perform the traditional dabke inside a building under construction that was damaged during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants during the summer of 2014, on December 7, 2016, in Gaza City. Getty Images

That message is of a culture beautifully rooted in the land, says Boughelaf, and of resistance and existence. After all, for Palestinians, dabke is much more than cultural expression. As Anas Abu Oun, project coordinator for the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe in Ramallah, says, it is a political act, with dancers emitting a “united energy and a common language of movement — language that comes from years of sharing the same suffering”.

“Dabke serves as both creative protest and an emblem of courage and defiance against injustice,” says Nadia Sibany, a colleague of Boughelaf at Hawiyya. “The physical arrangement of a group — moving and stomping together, merging with and becoming instruments of the land, holding hands and chanting in unison — expresses a mighty narrative of pride, resilience, love for life and resistance against all that threatens it. Dance can tell stories, and once stories are told it is impossible to deny their existence. To exist is to resist.”

Yet dabke is far more than a static form of cultural expression or an act of non-violent resistance. It is an evolving art form. Bands such as 47Soul and the Ministry of Dub-key have taken it, fused it with reggae, hip-hop and electronica, and created the sound of a new generation. For 47Soul, that has meant creating what the band once described as the ‘futuristic sound of dabke.’ For the Ministry of Dub-key, it has meant playing homage to dabke as both a dance and a performance.

Bands such as 47Soul and the Ministry of Dub-key have taken dabke and fused it with reggae, hip-hop and electronica. Supplied

“Artists like 47Soul add a nice touch to traditional music and dance, merging various genres and reflecting the ways in which our identities are similarly hybrid in today’s world,” says Farah Haddad, another member of Hawiyya. “This is part of a wider underground/alternative art scene emerging from the Arab world, which has created a more relatable and inclusive artistic space for both artists and art lovers.”

In Lebanon, both Koudaih and Wassim Bou Malham, the guitarist and lead vocalist with Who Killed Bruce Lee, have reworked dabke for a contemporary audience. Back in 2018, they were part of a project called Dabaka, which also featured the Syrian musicians Samer Saem Eldahr (Hello Psychaleppo) and Tanjaret Daghet’s Khaled Omran. Funded by the UNHCR, the collaboration sought to place folkloric dabke within a contemporary context.

“Dabke is, and is not, a traditional dance and music; it’s a universe,” says Koudaih. “We took dabke somewhere else — to somewhere we would like to go — but it’s important to remember that dabke is a very modern music too. When you talk about 47Soul and other bands, these are independent, alternative musicians that are working on dabke, but in Lebanon and Syria a lot of dabke musicians are already creating very modern dabke using synthesizers and drum machines. It’s their music, they’re adding stuff. It’s alive. It’s so big and so many people are working on it, but it has no limits. The limit is your imagination.”

In a similar fashion, the dance element of dabke is evolving, although Boughelaf says it is important to differentiate between traditional dabke and folkloric dance that is inspired, or influenced, by more contemporary styles. The former, which is danced at weddings and other celebrations, is composed of a set of very specific steps that are not intended to be changed and contain certain unspoken rules. The latter, however, is open to evolution, and has no limits in terms of its potential development.

King Hussein (1935 - 1999) holds the hand of his younger brother Prince Hassan bin Talal and demonstrates the Dabke, a Jordan folk dance, Amman, Jordan, 12th April 1965. Getty Images

“Whilst being rooted in its purest traditional form, the type of dabke we, as Hawiyya, dance is very much influenced by modern or contemporary styles, which gives us additional tools to be able to express ourselves and share our messages with our audiences,” says Boughelaf. “In this form, dabke is ever-changing, constantly evolving, and shaped by the variety of styles, interests and strengths of the different members of the group.”

Boughelaf, for example, is interested in the fusion between Palestinian dabke and traditional Algerian dances such as Alaoui, Chaoui and Kabyle, while for Abu Oun the creation of a contemporary identity inspired by the past is an essential element of Palestinian resistance.

That’s why, in 2018, Hawiyya and El-Funoun collaborated on “Curfew”, a fusion of traditional and contemporary dance that sought to encourage individual action in the face of injustice.

“I would like to see dabke progress in every way possible so that we have an array of sounds that we can choose from,” says Bou Malham, who believes it is his life’s mission to present dabke in a way that suits his generation. “I would to love to see more people get into it. I would love to see more people researching it and understanding it. There has to be some sort of common knowledge from now on about the maqam and about the beats of dabke, so people can take them and then use them in the context that they want to hear them in, no matter what that context is.”